Kate Brubeck on breathing life into language
A teacher at Mills College observes students making grammar their own
The first day of Fundamentals of Grammar for Academic Writers has met. No chalk in our room (or any others on the same floor). No administrative assistant in the office to get some from at this hour. And a pedant in the front row trying to engage me in discourse about the display of well-worn style manuals that he has fanned before him like certificates of pedigree. (“I write reviews,” he tells me, “for Amazon.”)
But, all things considered, the day has gone well.
I teach the beginning of this course pretty conventionally, starting with the parts of speech, and have laid the groundwork for an analogy between cooking and writing. Preparatory to asking the class to name these basic word groups, I divert them to the unthreatening image of the food pyramid.
“So,” I ask. “Let’s name the basic food groups. Any volunteers?”
I am still experimenting with this analogy but have found it to be productive. Number one, it exposes the fact that, as with the parts of speech, most mere mortals are confused as to what basic units of anything are. Number two, there is debate even among the pantheon of professional curmudgeons as to the number of basic units, also true of grammar.
“Dessert,” offers the first brave soul.
“Dairy,” hazards another.
“And peanut butter.”
“So—cheese…” I query. “Where does that fit in? Protein or dairy?”
“And peanut butter?”
“A legume, so a vegetable, but primarily a protein.”
Needless to say, our framework is shaky as we head into grammar. But I’ve known it to be shakier.
“Let’s switch to language,” I say. “How many types of words would you say there are there?”
Looks of skepticism.
“Think of all the cuisines in the world,” I prompt, “and how varied they are. Yet they are all built from a set number of kinds of ingredients, right?”
“If we think of all the variety in cuisines as variety in kinds of writing, of all the forms of English-language writing that exist—sonnets and lectures and parking tickets and love letters and peace treaties and post-operative instructions for dental surgery—anything you could possibly think to write is built from a set number of kinds of words. So what do you think? How many kinds of words, or parts of speech, are there?”
“EIGHT.” This delivered in pompous tones from the Amazon reviewer/style-manual aficionado/published writer/student poseur. It does not escape my notice that he did not participate in the food-pyramid discussion and has waited until everyone else has taken the risk that so many students feel is an intrinsic part of engaging with grammar: exposing themselves to the humiliation of not knowing. This distinguishing feature of many of my students grieves me; no one enrolls in a chemistry class feeling she should already know chemistry, and yet linguistic shame is practically synonymous with the study of grammar.
“OK,” I say, curbing my irritation at the smugness of the know-it-all. “So let’s talk more. What are the parts of speech? What can we call the word ingredients?”
“The first group is things and people,” someone says uncertainly, as if reading an eye chart from a great distance. “And stuff,” she adds, as another piece suggests itself to her from deep memory. “The second group is adjectives. The third group is connectors.”
“OK, anyone else?”
“Yes–there are adverbs.”
“Great! And what are adverbs? What do they do?”
“They’re adjectives that describe verbs.”
“Pronouns,” someone else argues, “are nouns.”
“No,” insists someone else. “Adjectives.”
“What about articles?” I press on.
“Adjectives,” says the adjective-rights advocate.
“No way—“ says a dissenter. “They are their own part of speech.”
“What about particles?” I say, my closing thrust.
Later, once we have sorted out what the parts of speech are, and I have assured the class that we will introduce ourselves to each part of speech in more detail as the course progresses, we turn our focus to nouns and pronouns. We do a Connie Hale exercise in which students are to come up with three nouns to identify themselves. “Remember,” I say, “to exploit everything a noun can do.” There are the usual contenders—mother, daughter, student, writer, San Franciscan, South-Asian-American winner of the la dee da flash-fiction contest (guess who the self-nominated candidate for the “winner” of this noun activity is?). These identity tags fit predictably into anticipated slots that show how nouns can range in particularity. But we also see some creative interpretations, of both nouns and identity markers. Alone writes one woman. Stanza writes another. Flurry. And the existentially evocative, here.
By the end of this first meeting, the bulk of the class, minus the award-winning, grammatically superior, published writer (who, I am relieved to see, is filling out a drop form), have unanimously approved a grammar category we call “the legume,” a category that accommodates any areas of disagreement about words, or blurred definitions of words, or multiple functions of words, or as-yet unclear categories of words. This rogue act of invention delights me. Sometimes, as in the discussion that has led to the creation of “the legume,” a fugue of questions will fuse into a harmonic crescendo as everyone achieves simultaneous enlightenment. So grammar isn’t about right and wrong? It’s just a set of guidelines? Are you saying grammar exists in all registers of English? That differences in language are just that: different forms all housed under the huge umbrella of “English”?
At other times, I am dismayed by the sheer number of students who have been so deeply spooked by their encounters with grammar. After all, the human animal is created with the language function built in, and grammar is just the articulation of an inner logic we all possess and use daily. I wince for the students who cannot get enough of a grip on what a noun is to name it—how for them, like a bar of soap in the shower, it defies capture. Grammar makes them stupid, in the stuporous sense of the word—dazed, lacking mental alertness, inert with shock. I thought a noun was a subject, they’ll say, warily. Or, having revived slightly from grokking that nouns function as, but are not synonymous with, subjects, they crumple. Or, like an exhausted pet owner who’s put the couch off-limits, they give up at the discovery of a gerund wagging its verbal tail, happily ensconced in the subject position in a sentence.
Confront them with a noun functioning as an adjective and they’ll fade into a waking coma, simply cease all brain function, waiting for it to be over, for the danger of the chaos that grammar represents to go away. They get rigid, anxious, uncomprehending. And I understand them. For many of them, criticism of their writing has often felt like an attack on their essential self. And why wouldn’t it? Writing is voice, and voice is self. “My work was bleeding,” confided one student of a teacher’s comments. “Red ink dripped over every word. It was like a battlefield.”
Is it any wonder then, if writing is to them a battle, that grammar has become a graveyard? I must seem to them just an obsessed Dr. Frankenstein, exhuming dead bits I insist can be reconfigured to create something living. How meaningless my language prancing must appear to those students who have felt only injury when braving writing. But I prance on. Because I never know when it will happen, or precisely how, but I lie in wait for the moment when atrophied language recognition stirs. When it does, it signals the regeneration of a singular life, an organism unto itself, a living, breathing autonomous thing. Awkward, perhaps, as its legs take their first lurching steps and its tongue utters its first hoarse words, and scarred, but resurrected and alive. And, like all living things, unique in its expression.
“In the past,” one student wrote, partway through the semester, “I felt like I was never formally introduced to Grammar, like I was always on Grammar’s behemoth front porch and her not ever noticing me. Grammar was a subject that teacher after teacher and professor after professor preached about and told me I should already have learned. However, it wasn’t a subject that was taught to me. I had to pick up bits and pieces with questions and readings. But with this class it is like Grammar finally noticed me, said ‘Hi,’ and has invited me into her house. So this class is like the house of Grammar, with verbs falling out of the faucet, noun-and-adjective sandwiches, prepositions under the couch, and a conjunction staircase.”
“Learning ‘good’ English is great,” wrote another, “and can be useful. But it does not need to be the stick with which we beat others. I would rather the English language remain as bio-diverse as a rainforest, not become a damaging monoculture like a field of GMO corn, where everyone is forced to write the same way.”
And yet another: “Grammar seems like a fact; however, grammar is also a social justice issue.”
Would that I could say it so well.